Current champions Australia will not defend their title (Image: X02378)

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Australia and New Zealand have officially withdrawn from this year’s Rugby League World Cup, citing player welfare and safety concerns.

They have requested the International Rugby League postpones the tournament until 2022 to "minimise risk of players contracting COVID-19 and ensure the best outcome for player wellbeing".

The event is due to be held in England this October and this latest news is a major blow to the tournament's hopes of going ahead.

The ARL and NZRL made the decision after considering the risk of COVID-19 infection in the United Kingdom, the worsening environment in Australia and the time a majority of NRL players would have to spend away from home under strict biosecurity conditions prior to the World Cup.

It comes just a week after Rugby League World Cup officials insisted the tournament would go ahead, and said that 15 of the 16 nations – just excluding Australia – had signed a participation agreement.

England beat Tonga in the semi-finals of the 2017 competition
(Image: Getty)

ARLC chairman Peter V’landys AM said: "Not participating in this year’s World Cup is not a decision the Commission has taken lightly, but we must put the best interests of our players and officials first. Protecting them is our absolute priority.

"In the current environment, the risks to the safety, health and wellbeing of the players and officials travelling from Australia to participate in the tournament this year are insurmountable.

"The majority of NRL players are currently living away from home under difficult biosecurity protocols.

"They would then be required to remain under protocols and away from home for the duration of the tournament before again quarantining on return to Australia. This is too much to ask our players and officials to do.

"We have again requested the IRL and Rugby League World Cup consider postponing the event until 2022 to enable all players to participate."

Prince Harry made the draw for the tournament
(Image: Simon Wilkinson/SWpix.com)

NZRL CEO Greg Peters said the decision to withdraw was because the safety and wellbeing of staff and players "cannot be guaranteed to our satisfaction".

Peters said: ”There are stark differences between how the pandemic is being managed in the UK compared to Australasia and recent developments have highlighted how quickly things can change.

"The tournament organisers have moved heaven and earth to make this work, so it is not an easy decision, but the COVID-19 situation in the UK shows no sign of improving, and it's simply too unsafe to send teams and staff over.

"We understand how disappointing this is for fans and those involved, however player and staff safety remains paramount."

World Cup organisers have since issued a response which reads: “RLWC2021 note the disappointing statement made by the ARLC and NZRL which may have wide ranging implications for international Rugby League. RLWC2021 were informed at very short notice and will continue discussions with all stakeholders to agree on the best way forward. A further statement will be made in due course.”